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Historifiction: Pitfalls and Peaks

Following on Becca’s most recent article, Deense has a few thoughts on historical fiction to share.


For those of us with a passion for history, fiction and cinema can be both a joy and a horror. We watch in frustration as facts are thrown by the wayside in order to provide us with what the writers or directors think is a good story. We are caught squealing with glee at small yet perfectly-realised details. There are often highs and lows in each piece and no one is more critical of anything set in the past than those who’ve studied the era.

Historically based novels and movies has seen something of a renaissance in the past half-dozen years. As with any such genre explosion, a good portion of what gets produced can no more claim to be historical than some of Shakespeare’s histories. “Are they set in the past?” Yes. “Do they use the names of once famous and powerful persons? Yes. Do they adhere to the facts?” That’s where things get interesting.

For the purpose of this ramble, I thought it best to make a distinction between period and historical. I define them thus:

Period: Based in a historical setting (though it may have been contemporary when written), these works focus on fictional characters and events, the historical setting merely acting as a backdrop to their lives. Sarah Waters’ or Jane Austen’s works are excellent examples of period pieces.

Historical: Inspired by and focused upon the lives of actual people and/or actual events, but the interpretation of these people and events may be loose. The purpose of these works is to tell the story of someone who once lived and of whom there exists extant factual record.

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